April 29, 1975 saw the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Two United States Marine Corps helicopter squadrons, ten U.S. Air Force helicopters, and a large number of Air America choppers carried out 1,373 Americans and 5,595 people of other nationalities from South Vietnam to ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. Counting those who escaped by sea, some 130,000 people fled South Vietnam. It was the greatest evacuation since Dunkirk. By the time of the evacuation, the North Vietnamese were in the streets of Saigon. They had huge numbers of Chinese, Russian, and captured American weapons. Yet not one of the helicopters was shot down.
The night of 29 April, I escaped from Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, in the pouring rain and pitch black on an Air America Huey, a small helicopter that could only carry about ten people and was unarmed. As soon as we were airborne, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. As I learned later, mine was one of the few choppers fired upon. If the North Vietnamese had the fire power to shoot down our birds and bring the evacuation to a halt, why didn’t they?
I think the answer is that they didn’t want to. All they wanted was for us to be gone.
But if the North Vietnamese didn’t want to shoot down our helicopters, who shot at mine? My guess is that it was the South Vietnamese. We were pulling out and leaving them behind to face the conquering North Vietnamese. They were furious. I can’t say I blame them.
I’m forced to agree with critics who say it was a shameful war with a shameful ending. Most shameful was leaving behind the multiple thousands of South Vietnamese who had stood by our side. To this day, I grieve over the men who worked with my organization and were left behind.